Few Hip Hop artists spend more time in front of their audience than The Roots. Although the mass media (radio/video) in the States seems to have surprisingly ignored the group since they moved to Def Jam, the Philadelphia all-star outfit continues to make same of the most musical, most creative and most groundbreaking Hip Hop while remaining absolutely accessible to the streets. Rising Down finds the click taking similar production leaps that made Lupe Fiasco a mainstream “genius” in 2007, with the kind of veteran lyrical swordsmanship that is threaded throughout their extensive 15-year catalogue.
Lyrically, Black Thought has gotten better with time. Just as Game Theory was a pensive journey through the narrow residential streets of Philadelphia, Rising Down brings the safari worldwide. “Criminal” explores the testimonies and evolution of the hoodlum, with who better than Saigon to add to the subject. Perfect guest placements make this album exciting and reaching beyond the walls of Okayplayers and the traditional fans. “Lost Desire” is a proclamation that whether working, Hip Hop or teaching youth is an exhausting cause, but something that cannot be retreated from. Malik B‘s presence, as throughout the album, gives a grittier texture to the track. Talib Kweli, who also provides background vocals on “I Will Not Apologize,” provides his signature stinging perspective. Every song has a timeless message, albeit an album filled with pessimism. Then again, when the most dynamic group in rap music is repeatedly passed over in the last five years to younger, less convicted voices, can we really blame them? If anything, The Roots meet the frustration of their fans and finally speak on the inequalities of the music industry.
The production on Rising Down shows just how self-sufficient The Roots are as producers. Credit is given to the band, longtime affiliate Khari Mateen, along with manager Richard Nichols in most places, with ?uestlove taking solo credit on “75 Bars” and “Rising Up” (with James Poyser) exclusively. Electronic music appears to be a dominant inspiration, with downtempo drum and key arrangement on “Rising Down,” and the quirky Pete Bjorn & John approach to instrumentation used on “Unwritten.” At its core though, this is still a Roots album. “@ 15” and “75 Bars” are still merely drum-created, and at no point does this far-reaching group forget to show you where Organix came from in their portfolio of sounds. If anything, ?uest and gang might be the only producers besides Dangermouse who give engineering its proper consideration. From the singers to Thought, the way vocals are presented, from distorted to crisp and clear illuminate the tones that the tracks are providing us. Rising Down is a deliberate mosaic of everything most musicians, writers and performers forget to consider, and with each listen, new intentions step out to reveal themselves.
If Game Theory was commentary on a city trying to breathe in its gunsmoke, Rising Down is the “I told you so,” to all such cities. This isn’t a happy effort, but instead it’s a left turn in the face of those expecting The Roots to simply pass by the status quo. Lyrically, Black Thought and Malik B haven’t changed their agendas, just reminded us why we ought to listen up. Guests from Styles P, Saigon to Mos Def and even Common guide the way, but only seem to be along to jam in front of new crowds. Musically, this sounds like The Dust Brothers and Native Tongues shared a college suite and traded iPods for a day. While it won’t grab you at first listen like the last album, Rising Down joins Things Fall Apart nine years ago for its acquired taste and timeless relevance.